On Research

Over the past few months, I've done something I rarely if ever did before: I attended a talk or two and even gave one or two ('a talk': what an odd, ominous, and beautiful noun). Through all my years of grad school (7) and adjunct teaching (9), I don't think I ever went to a talk. Maybe one or two but I've successfully repressed those memories.

The one thing that has struck me, no doubt in my narcissism, is the way people talk about things versus how I talk about things. People who give talks quote other people; they look up facts, even double check them; they drop names with seeming abandon — from Greek gods to esoteric philosophers to the usual litany of theorists to novelists, rock bands, and filmmakers. Which is to say, people who give talks do research. Me, not so much. (Of course, this is all relative. I realize I drop all kinds of names — and, yes, always the same names: Deleuze, Guattari, Burroughs, Nietzsche, Houellebecq, Cassavetes. But, holy moly, in these talks I've been to, people drop names every sentence! It was startling to me. I'm ignorant!)

I assume because of my big nose and glasses and know-it-all assertions, and because of the PhD, people assume I know things. But I don't. I know shockingly few things, in fact. Sometimes, I wear this with pride, a bit to my chagrin (not to mention the chagrin of those around me). The fact is: it's not a matter of judgement on me or them. It's a matter of taste: I don't enjoy knowing things. I don't enjoy research. That's just how I roll. Somewhere along the line, I missed the moral imperative I know opting for the much more luxurious I believe.

This is one reason I never felt at home, or could find a home, in academia. The whole university system is predicated on expertise in a field of knowledge — Medieval British Political Philosophy (pace Dr. Oliver, my favorite academic, truly), Dante, 19th Century British Literature, psychoanalysis (I don't know what happens in the sciences). I never had such a field; I have no domain of knowledge. I wrote a mess of a dissertation about tropes and rhetoric, reading and quoting about eight books very few of which ever mention tropes or rhetoric. I open the book talking about William Burroughs and aliens, talk about Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty, then end taking about Alice in Wonderland.

But this issue precedes my run-ins with academia. Starting at a pretty young age — six, seven — I started collecting records — Fleetwood Mac, Dire Straits, Carole King. I knew a lot about the albums I owned, more than kids my own age. But my knowledge came strictly from the album — from the music itself and the liner notes. I was sated, satiated, by the knowledge I had just sitting on my bedroom floor listing to "Rumors." Why the hell would I leave my bar mitzvah hi-fi system, leave the spinning turntable, leave the music playing and the comfort of my room to learn more? It simply never occurred to me.

I thought I knew things. I thought I was what people today call a "music nerd." But then I got to college and then San Francisco and, whoa, I learned quickly that I knew nothing. It shifted my whole relationship to myself and to knowledge. Very, very quickly it became apparent that while I knew a few things, and had strong opinions (much to the chagrin and disdain to the tepid San Francisco sentiment and true music nerds), I didn't actually know shit.

But what is research? There is what we commonly refer to as research — reading what others have written, mining archives of unpublished material, interviewing people and then — then! — making sure that what those people said is true. Oy vey ist mir! That is a lot of energy expenditure that I can't imagine, well, spending.

I get why it's popular, why this notion of knowing things, has such currency. How would a publisher or an academic department chair distinguish between people? The process of vetting who gets published, who gets the job, who gets the talk has to turn on something. So why not knowledge? Whoever knows more gets the gig! It provides a neat, seemingly objective way to make sense of the world, to make sense of authority amidst the deafening din of voices.

This makes me sound disparaging of research. I am not. I am disparaging of the institutional reliance on research as a metric of who deserves money, a job, a contract. But I am not disparaging of research. How could I be? I love that people — other people — do research. Then, if I'm so inclined, I can read the back of their book cover and claim to know some things myself. That sounds like I'm being a douche but I mean it: I love that other people love doing research.

But what is research? I remember first reading Hunter Thompson's Hell's Angels and being blown away. Here was research I understood! Of course, it was still research I would never actually do. I mean, c'mon, imagine me spending five minutes, not to mention a year, with the Angels. It's absurd. Still, it was research as living through. And this excited me. Gonzo journalism shifted how I thought and imagined my own — or any — relationship to knowledge. While I might not spend a year with the Angels, I certainly would spend years with "Rumors." And this gave me plenty to say.

Back when I was teaching the introduction to rhetoric at UC Berkeley, I'd always open my lectures with the same shtick, which I imagined as provocative — and, well, I believe still is. I'd say, "I'm not going to teach you anything. I'm going to teach you how to do things." (Alas, this is lost to posterity as the first 30 minutes of those lectures weren't recorded because, well, I don't know things such as how to turn on a mic.)  Sure, my class turned on texts. But the texts were common objects to reckon as much as they were fodder for how to reckon. I taught these essays and books as self-interpreting. Which is to say, I taught a certain tautology of experience and knowledge rather than knowledge being the ground for experience, the justification of and for experience. The text defined itself with us as readers. And that is a kind of research. (My great mentor and advisor, Charlie Altieri, told me he loved reading my dissertation but thought my argument was ridiculous because it was a tautology: a text goes as it goes? How idiotic! His objection, however, was my assertion and I doubled down — although I did add a footnote about tautology somewhere in there.)

For me, research doesn't involve going to the archives or reading a lot of books. For me, research involves getting into something, going with something, giving up my body to know its ways, its mechanics, its modes, its desires. For me, research is erotic.


ayşegül said...

My feelings exactly. That's why when I first heard you lecturing (!), I decided to go into philosophy since you opened up a different way to do and teach philosophy, one which I thought was impossible inside academia's high castle. Well, it is still impossible I guess but I enjoy hopping and playing and dancing on the green fields around the castle anyway. I am sure they are watching us from the castle and they become green as well but with envy...

Thank you for opening up such a possibility for all who somehow listened you with sincere curiosity.

And this comment itself should prove that I'm not a robot. The question I see below is redundant...

arik said...

Epistemologically, How can anyone ever avoid doubling down on their tautology?

Pierre said...

You're still a fan of Houellebecq. That's too sad ;-)

Daniel Coffeen said...

Aysegul: I still fear I've been a terrible influence! My life is a wreck!

Arik: Right? But some people still want axioms and such. I don't get it.

Pierre: I do, I do — I'm a sucker for that little grumpy man.